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An average half hour TV show has a budget of around 5 lakh (Rs. 5,00,000) per episode. Out of which writing (story, screenplay and dialogue) budget is about Rs 15,000. In rare cases, very rare cases, maybe Rs. 30,000, if they’re really desperate. Thrilling, right?

It gets better in a film. In an average small budget production (Rs. 3 crores/Rs. 30 million), writers are lucky if they get paid Rs. 5 lakh while actors, the director, even the cameraman get paid several times that amount. Come to think of it, almost every technician, except the writer does. The only people who are paid less than the writer are assistant directors but then they are paid even lesser than spot boys, so go figure.

I mean they go on and on about how important a good script is but when it comes to putting money where their mouth is, and it’s not that important.

And everyone knows you can’t really begin a production without a script.

Earlier this used to rankle me, till I realised one thing. A script is not a literary document. It is at best a functional document committed to putting ideas (descriptions, action) across in a succinct and a verbally economical manner. You have to since you cannot run the risk of your script exceeding 100-110 pages. The only place where you can really show off your literary genius is in the dialogue.

It is only a blueprint, a take off point. It’s a plan which the engineers, contractors, electricians and plumbers use to construct a building. Film is a collaborative project which begins with a script. Based upon the script, your team – the director, the production designer, the cameraman, the executive producer, the line producer, actors etc. gets together. All of them work damn hard, if not harder, than you the writer, to make the project a success.

Still, I believe writers deserve to be paid more than they are currently. But I’ve learned to live with it. And it wasn’t exactly hard reconciling to it. Rs. 15,000 may be less than 5 per cent of the overall production budget but it is still damn good money.

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Every show on air begins with a premise, or what we call, a concept. What is the show about? It is a different matter that sooner or later every drama goes the same way. After about 50-100 episodes you cannot make out the difference between a Kyunki and a Kahani.  But by then the stickiness factor come into play.

But to grab eyeballs initially you have to have a differentiator. So we had Saat Phere: Saloni ka Safar which was about an otherwise accomplished girl but who has a dark skin. Banoo Main Teri Dulhan was about an illiterate girl who is conned into marrying a mentally challenged guy. The main protagonist of the show, and therefore, the concept is always, always about a woman.

The concept is accompanied by a broad storyline for six months and detailed story, screenplay and dialogues for a month.

So there is this girl who is dark skinned. She is otherwise accomplished and affectionate, an ideal Indian woman, but all efforts to marry her off are in vain. No one wants to marry a dark skinned girl and infuse the bloodline with her swarthy genes. And then comes along. End of month 1.

Nahar wants to marry her but he faces opposition from his family. Nahar eventually overcomes the opposition and the two are married but Saloni is made to feel unwelcome in the extended family. There are numerous efforts and attempts to belittle and humiliate her. Saloni faces everything with stoicism. And then she saves the family from dishonour on one occasion. This leads to her acceptance in the family. End of month 2.

(Disclaimer: I’m not very familiar with the show so I’m mostly making up the story. But yeah that’s how the broad, broad storyline goes.)

Based on this document, the channel takes a call. Though they usually hear out the concept and story, it is usually the concept that hooks them because the story can always be modified. Sometimes as soon as they hear what the story is about, they tune off. It happened to me once. We were pitching to a major channel for a show about a woman who becomes widowed on the day of her wedding and how she survives, thrives and eventually even finds love again. But as soon as the channel heard ‘widow’ they said, “Next.”

Yeah you do have to go with more than one. But never more than three. It’s never a good idea to present too many choices. I hate it when that happens to me. I can never make up mind about which jeans to buy.

Later, the story is fleshed out and we add incidents. How is Saloni humiliated? Does someone add excess salt to her daal when she is not looking? How does she save the family’s honour? Doe she save the unmarried sister from getting raped by reaching in the nick of time?

After the story is fleshed out – in minute detail for a month, we get into the screenplay stage. This usually takes a lot of time and involves a lot of back and forth with the channel. That’s because at the beginning of the show everyone is struggling to find a look and feel of the show. Ditto for the dialoguing stage.

And then there is casting to be done, sets to be built, costumes to be designed and a bank of 20 episodes to be shot (which usually never happens). It could be anywhere between 6-9 months (more if it’s a comedy) from initial approval before a show is ready to go on air.

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You know what they say, If you think it’s your lucky day, don’t worry, it too shall pass. So true.

And there was moi, thinking just that I was having one of the best days of my life. No script to turn in, an off day from my running schedule, nowhere to go, plus I had just received a fresh stock of DVDs.

This is how it went. My DVD bootlegger (sort of), let’s call him Imran (name changed to protect his identity) texted me in the morning saying: Charlie Whilsun War@Maicaal Clinton@No Conttry for Old Men@There Will be Blud@Atonemen@Joonu@and any@holiwood boliwood intar netinal wald cinema im Imran DVD.

He followed it up with a call. “Sistaar, I was in the area so I thought I would call and check. Naya Maal has come in. All the Oscar filims -,” He paused hopefully.

Now Imran is in ‘the area’ everyday because all film and TV fraternity is based there. And he gets Naya Maal every day. So, recognising his spiel for a pitch I asked suspiciously, “Need money? ’Cos if that’s the case don’t even think about coming here. I don’t have any.”

He sounded horrified. “No, sistaar! I was just trying to get you the best DVDs! If I don’t then you complain that the good stock is gone.”

I do do that.

“All right, come on in,” I sighed reluctantly. “But, I’m warning you, don’t even think of showing me anything other than the films you mentioned. I can’t afford it.”

He swore on his mother and dear departed father that he wouldn’t.

A half hour later he had chitkoed (can’t quite get an English word to convey the same feeling. ‘Saddled me with?’ Nah!) 80 plus DVD on me and lightened my wallet by 8000 plus rupees. (Yes, the math works out to 100 rupees per DVD. I did say he was a bootlegger.)

I had inserted 3:10 to Yuma into the DVD player and already indentified the next flick that I was going to watch when I got a call from a film producer. He wanted to sit in on a narration of a romantic comedy I had promised him. And since I had boasted that I already had a ready script (which I didn’t), I had to work out a reasonable screenplay, or at the very least, a scenic order (which I’m working on) to justify the huge signing amount (which I had gladly accepted).

I have yet to find the time to approach my DVD player again. Sigh! And you wonder why I’m not writing sparkling posts.

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